A growing number of companies are tapping into women's anxieties around breast cancer by offering herbal supplements they claim can support breast health and even prevent disease.
One of those companies is Toronto-based FemMed, which sells a line of natural health products at major chains such as Shoppers Drug Mart, Loblaws and Wal-Mart. FemMed called particular attention to its breast health supplement in February, when it issued a press release announcing it had received approval from Health Canada to market it as a natural health product.
The makers of the product claim it works by supporting the healthy metabolism of estrogen, which may "favourably influence whether estrogen in their body takes a 'beneficial' or a 'disease-potential' path," according to the press release.
That's not an insignificant promise. And at about $30 a bottle for less than a month's supply, it doesn't come cheap.
Should women buy into the idea that a natural supplement can stave off breast cancer, or is it simply too good to be true?
FemMed Breast Health is made with a combination of HMRlignan (a plant compound), indole-3-carbinol (found in cruciferous vegetables), calcium glucarate, milk thistle, Schisandra chinensis (a vine), vitamin D and stinging nettle (a plant). FemMed says that indole-3-carbinol and lignans help estrogen metabolism and decrease breast cancer risk.
FemMed conducted a clinical study involving 47 premenopausal women and 49 post-menopausal women. The women either took the supplement or a placebo for 28 days and had their urine tested.
At the end of the study period, the researchers reported that women who took the supplement had higher concentrations of estrogen C-2 hydroxylation metabolites.
This is important, they say, because those are "good" metabolites that support health. In the report, which was published in Breast Cancer: Basic and Clinical Research, the authors conclude that this "may constitute a mechanism for the reduction of breast cancer risk as well as risk for other estrogen-related cancers."
Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer to affect women and one in nine will be diagnosed with the disease during her lifetime. The FemMed Breast Health product can help women take control of their health, according to Shawna Page, founder and CEO of FemMed.
"The statistics are so staggering and so scary," said Page. "There hasn't been anything in the marketplace from a natural perspective that women can take as a preventative."
Under Health Canada rules, FemMed is not allowed to directly say the breast health supplement prevents cancer. But, according to Page, "in theory, that's what the research shows."
The reality check
While the claims might sound convincing, breast cancer experts say the evidence simply isn't there. Estrogen is involved in the development of some types of breast cancers, but not all. Many other factors influence whether a person will develop the disease.
Oncologists say there is no clear understanding of the relationship between estrogen and breast cancer.
And contrary to what the literature from FemMed and other companies in the natural-health sector say, there is no proof that certain estrogen ratios are "good" and others "bad," said Karen Gelmon, a medical oncologist at the B.C. Cancer Agency and a professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia.
"This is premature, to make any of the claims that they are making," Gelmon said.
Christine Pratt, associate professor at the University of Ottawa who studies breast cancer, says emerging research suggests that progesterone – not estrogen – may be a bigger factor in the development of breast cancer.
In addition, the clinical study involving FemMed Breast Health involved a "very small" number of women over a "very short" length of time, Pratt said.
The bottom line
Many companies have developed products that claim to help women influence or "take control" of their disease risk. The fears that many women have about developing breast cancer helps these products survive. But the evidence proving that they work simply isn't there.
Gelmon said that instead of investing in unproven treatments or therapies, people who are really looking to improve their health can take matters into their own hands by losing weight, quitting smoking or becoming more physically active, for instance.
"I think that we've got a society that … sometimes over-exaggerates their risk of getting breast cancer … [and] underestimates what we can do," said Gelmon.